A happy life can be a risky business

Why are some people inclined to jump out of airplanes, or risk thousands of dollars in the stock market—while others find it difficult just to meet or talk to new people? Why do some of us avoid risk at all costs, while, for others, it’s a way of life?

The psychology of risk-taking assumes that there are different kinds of risks. For some, risk-taking serves to reduce boredom. For others, it’s a means to an end—a ‘necessary evil’—in order to gain something better. We use the word ‘risk’ to describe a wide array of motivations and incentives.

One type of risk-taker is the ‘sensation seeker.’ They want, and in fact, need, whatever ‘rush’ or sensation they experience when doing something dangerous. Sensation-seekers can vary from mountain climbers and skydivers to drug and gambling addicts, from racecar drivers to professional day-traders in the stock market. Risks can be clearly reckless (such as drugs), or rationally undertaken (as with the relative safety of organized car racing), or somewhere in-between. But in many of these cases, sensation is the motivation. Put simply, some people are more easily bored than others. For those who are easily bored, the ‘rush’ makes their lives more exciting.

It’s interesting to note that risk-taking personalities are the exact opposite of people who suffer from depression. Clinically depressed people hold negative assumptions about virtually everything. For example, they assume that it’s not possible to get what you want in life; that people are not to be trusted, and that, no matter how careful they are, their endeavors won’t turn out well. Risk-taking personalities are just the opposite. They minimize the importance of the fact that things might not (or don’t) go well, and focus on what might or can go well. Depressed people tend to focus more on factors such as chance, luck, or ‘fate.’ Risk-takers are more concerned with exercising control over, and even mastering, their environment.

The need for the ‘rush’ can take reckless forms. Some people, for example, gamble too much, or drink to excess and drive like maniacs. Rational, cautious risk-takers, on the other hand, approach ‘extreme’ hobbies such as surfing, skiing, skydiving and gun collecting with intelligence and responsibility. The difference? While others go blindly by the seat-of-their-pants, ignoring the danger to themselves or others, the more rational risk-takers plan for, and strive to guard against, the attendant dangers.

Is rational, intelligent risk-taking mentally unhealthy? No way! Reasonable risk-taking is part of life. ‘No pain, no gain’ can be more accurately stated: ‘No risk taken, no possibility of gain.’ Or, even better (and quite true), ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ I’ve spent a lot of time in my practice trying to convince clinically depressed people to think more like this.

Marvin Zuckerman, Ph.D., a researcher commenting on the subject of risk in Psychology Today, agrees: ‘Although risk-taking has negative aspects and can even prove fatal, it is a positive force as well. Without risky experiences, humanity would stagnate; there would be little impetus for discovery.’ He is, of course, right. Every positive step in the history of mankind involves someone, somewhere, taking a risk. What’s true for mankind is equally true for individuals: In order to accomplish something we want, we have to take chances. If we don’t, we’ll never, ever, know if we could have achieved our goal or not.

Risks are relative, can be small or large, and are not necessarily an end in themselves. Often, however, they are requirements for getting what we want. You want to buy a nicer house? Or get that medical degree? Or find that new romantic partner? Then you figure out how to go about it. If you discover you can’t, then you have to accept reality. But if you can, you proceed without letting fear inhibit you and hold you back. This is what distinguishes risk-takers from depressed people. They trust their intelligence to figure out, with resonable certainty, what makes sense and what does not. And then they ACT. Depressed people become paralyzed with fear, never progressing into the realm of action. It’s not that they forego SOME risks; it’s the fact they forego ALL risks, on principle, that brings about the paralysis and depression.

The underlying attitude of the depressed person is, ‘Something could go wrong. I don’t want to make a mistake. So I’ll stay put.’ In contrast, the underlying attitude of the risk-taker is, ‘I’m going to assume it can go well—unless or until there’s good evidence to the contrary.’ To the non risk-taker, this attitude seems downright crazy! Yet the typical risk-taker will tell you that despite failures or disappointments along the way, things generally go better than expected, especially when the process is carefully thought out. More than that, even in the midst of some failures, rejections or disappointments, the risk-taker can always feel like he’s living life rather than hiding from it.

Risk sometimes gets a bad name because it gets lumped together with sensation seeking. But sensation seeking and risk-taking are not the same. Sensation seeking—diving out of airplanes, extreme sports and the like—are fine for people who pursue these activities intelligently and rationally, but they are far from life requirements. On the other hand, avoiding the reasonable day-to-day challenges and trials can turn out to be an even greater risk to your psychological health.